New Wellingborough prison will be run by G4S

Work with Offenders assesses yesterday’s controversial announcement

Yesterday the Prisons and Probation Minister Lucy Frazer QC, announced that the initial 10-year contract to run the newly built prison in Wellingborough in Northamptonshire was being awarded to G4S.

This was a very controversial decision because the MoJ took the the contract for running HMP Birmingham away from G4S only last year owing to its failure to operate a safe environment. G4S has been struggling with its public image in the criminal justice sector ever since the scandal of overcharging the government on its electronic tagging contract.

The government found that G4S and the other electronic tagging provider Serco had overcharged for tracking the movements of people who had moved abroad, returned to prison, or died. G4S agreed to compensate the Ministry of Justice in 2014, reaching a settlement worth £121m. But it remained under investigation by the Serious Fraud Office until July of this year when it was agreed that G4S would pay a £38.5m penalty and £5.9m to cover the SFO’s costs.

The company was given a 40% discount on its fine after co-operating with the SFO. The company has also been involved in other scandals, pulling out of running the Brook House immigration removal centre near Gatwick Airport last year and stopping running Medway secure training centre in Kent in 2016 after BBC's Panorama programme broadcast undercover footage of inmates and detainees being allegedly assaulted and verbally abused at two sites.

However, it also fair to say that the other adult prisons run by the company - Altcourse, Parc, Rye Hill and Oakwood – have generally been rated highly by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons (HMIP).

Indeed, the whole process of awarding the contract for the new prison has been controversial. The government named G4S as its preferred choice to run the new £253m prison back in July but faced a legal challenge from a rival bidder (MTC-Novo). 

It is clear that the government realises that awarding the contract to G4S will raise eyebrows with the MoJ emphasising that in the other prisons managed by the company, performance is rated “good” or “reasonably good” by HMIP across 95% of the issues inspected. The MoJ also praises G4S for bringing  innovative new approaches to offender rehabilitation, including “a cutting-edge families intervention programme and peer-led initiatives”.

The contract to run the prison is worth approximately £300 million and is part of the government’s pledge to invest up to £2.5 billion in building 10,000 new modern prison places.

A new name 

The MoJ also announced that the new prison will be called Five Wells, a name chosen from more than 120 suggestions submitted by the local community. The name refers to the five historic wells surrounding the town of Wellingborough. HMP Five Wells will be a category C resettlement prison and incorporates the latest design and technology to enhance security and rehabilitation. It will hold around 1,680 prisoners and is due to open in early 2022. There has been a prison on the site since 1963 when a Borstal was opened. The site converted to a Category C training prison for adults in 1990 but was closed by the MoJ in 2012.

The new prison is designed with enhanced security in mind. Bar-less windows will stop waste being thrown out and prevent prisoners accessing drugs and mobile phones flown in by drones. High speed network cabling will also be incorporated to enable modern security measures such as airport-style security scanning, to prevent the smuggling of the illicit items that fuel violence. Hopefully, the cabling will also enable resettlement efforts to be modernised with prisoners having (controlled) access to appropriate parts of the Internet.

It’s clear that new modern prisons such as HMP Five Wells will provide much better living and working facilities for prisoners and the staff charged with their care, especially compared to our crumbling Victorian prisons such as Pentonville, Wandsworth and Wormwood Scrubs. Building such large prisons is economically attractive and newer prisons boast much cheaper financial costs per inmate.

However, many justice reformers voice strong opposition to these new super-sized “Titan” prisons which are notoriously difficult to run safely and inevitably mean that the majority of prisoners are held many miles from home, making family ties hard to maintain and resettlement plans difficult to achieve.

HMP Berwyn, the most recent Titan prison to be opened in 2017, has suffered from a range of teething problems with its population still substantially under its planned capacity. In August there were 1,760 prisoners out of a planned total of 2,106. We must wait and see whether the opening of HMP Five Wells goes more smoothly.